Imagine, for a moment, the air traffic control tower at a busy airport. Air traffic controllers must manage the departures and arrivals of multiple planes at once, all the while monitoring other air traffic and keeping an eye on the weather. It’s a lot to manage. This type of system has often been compared to the way our brains function. It too has to manage multiple tasks, focus attention in different areas, and control impulses in order for us to complete tasks and function well in the world. These skills in planning, focus, controlling impulses, and organization are all part of what are known as executive functioning skills. Although sometimes overlooked, these skills are crucial to effective learning, job success, and functioning well in daily life. As parents, we can help our children develop these crucial skills if we understand a bit about how they develop.
What are Executive Functioning Skills?
The term “executive functioning skills” refers to a set of cognitive skills that are primarily focused on 3 main components: working memory, inhibitory control, and cognitive flexibility. Working memory, of course, refers to one’s ability to hold information in mind and use it to solve problems or complete tasks. Inhibitory control involves being able to manage thoughts and impulses so as not to get distracted and think before acting. Lastly, cognitive flexibility is one’s ability to switch mental “gears” based on different priorities or demands.
From these descriptions, it’s easy to see why these skills are closely linked to a wide variety of positive outcomes in children and adults. Children with stronger executive functioning skills, particularly working memory, tend to do better academically. In fact, executive functioning skills have been found to be just as important as IQ when considering academic performance. While IQ is more predictive of new learning, executive functioning skills are more closely linked to repetitive learning.
Individuals with stronger executive functioning skills also tend to have a better chance at success in careers and relationships as well. It’s not hard to see why. With strong executive functioning skills, one is able to plan ahead, stay organized, solve problems, and have a flexible mindset when it comes to job settings. Furthermore, in personal life, executive functioning skills promote good decision-making, coping with stress, and being more aware of one’s own emotions. Thus, having strong executive functioning skills provides a foundation of strength in all aspects of life.
How to Foster Executive Functioning Skills
The question among parents, then, is how do we foster this impressive suite of skills in our children? The science behind this question is clear: the environment in which children develop can have a dramatic impact on the growth of their executive functioning skills. Children who grow up in supportive, autonomy-supporting environments that provide stable, close relationships with adults are more likely to fully develop these skills.
Beyond that, there are certain parenting approaches that research finds specifically support the development of executive functioning skills. In general, positive parenting strategies tend to be linked to the development of strong executive functioning skills. Positive parenting strategies involve interactions between parents and children that focus on support, involvement, warmth, responsiveness, and positive regard. Scholars suggest these strategies foster executive functioning skills in children because they not only meet children’s emotional needs but also help children internalize self-regulatory patterns (which include many executive functioning skills).
In contrast, harsh parenting that involves shame, physical or emotional punishments, and lack of warmth undermines the development of executive functioning skills. Researchers contend that the reason for this may be that, under circumstances of harsh parenting, children become preoccupied by feelings of fear or anxiety, and this limits the development of executive functioning skills in the brain.
One key aspect of positive parenting that research consistently finds important for executive functioning skills is autonomy-supportive strategies. Although supporting a child’s autonomy can mean somewhat different things at different ages, in general it involves encouraging a child to try new things on their own and solve problems. Parents can help support children’s development of autonomy by not stepping in to solve every problem or sibling argument, but instead giving the child tools to learn to solve these problems themselves. This could mean helping the child brainstorm a list of possible solutions and encouraging the child to try one. Autonomy-support can also include activities like offering children choices and allowing them to take the lead (at least a bit) in play. Autonomy supportive strategies are crucial for helping children develop executive functioning skills, because with each problem they solve for themselves, children are building aspects of executive functioning to control their impulses, think ahead, and make decisions.
Aspects of our daily routines with children can also support their executive functioning skills. For example, ensuring that children have plenty of opportunities for physical activity is key. Being active is healthy for children, but it is especially good for fostering executive functioning skills. Particular physical activities that require children to remember rules and control their movements, like martial arts, sports, or yoga, seem to help children practice executive functioning skills in a fun way.
Additionally, some research suggests that daily routines can also help children develop executive functioning skills and reduce chaos in the home. Chaotic, unregulated environments are stressful for children since they do not know what to expect from day to day. Routines, especially those around meal times, bedtimes, and active versus calm times, are important for many aspects of children’s development, including executive functioning skills.
Life Skills That Matter
Fostering executive functioning skills in our children doesn’t have to be just one more thing on our parenting to-do list. Executive functioning skills can be encouraged naturally by loosening the reins just a bit and allowing children the autonomy to work through problems and try new things independently. By being intentional in how we interact with our children and allowing them opportunities to be active, our children will blossom as their executive functioning skills develop.
Preview Blurb: Does your child forget their homework at school or fail to follow up on tasks you give them? All these day-to-day skills we need to succeed in the world, like planning, organization, and memory, begin in childhood. Children and adults need these executive functioning skills to do well in school and in life. Read on to learn how our interactions with our children help bolster these skills each day.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.